Friday, December 26, 2014

Great Local Birding (Part 2)

Continued from my previous post.

Local birders will be well aware of the annual show at Sedgewick Park in Oakville, where a water treatment plant attracts a variety of insect-eating birds in early winter. Six species of warbler were present here at the beginning of December, most notably the Tennessee Warbler pictured below. I believe this is the first winter record for Ontario.

Just around the corner from Sedgewick Park I chased a reported Brant, the first good view I've had of one in a few years. This goose is tiny compared to Canada Geese, and generally only appears regularly in our area in late fall and early winter.

There seems to a multitude of less hardy birds attempting to overwinter this year. This Red-winged Blackbird and Fox Sparrow were both among a huge flock of birds in some open woods along the lake in Mississauga, and neither are species I regularly encounter in winter.

I came across this goose with what appears to be a radio transmitter around its neck. Please let me know if you know anything more about this!

This Purple Sandpiper was found at Lakefront Promenade Park in Mississauga one morning. I've only seen this species extremely distantly before, so it was great to watch this incredibly chubby little bird foraging in the algae.

Northern Saw-whet Owls probably winter fairly commonly, but are very hard to find due to their tiny size. Winter is generally the time to see owls in Southern Ontario, and indeed I've had 4 species in the last month.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Great Local Birding (part 1)

December is one of my favorite times for birding in Ontario, although some years are much better than others. I've spent lots of time birding around Etobicoke, Mississauga and Oakville, and this is certainly one of the better Decembers!

A Painted Bunting showed up in a residential neighborhood in Oakville recently and has been seen by many, but we couldn't find it in a brief visit. However, my first White-winged Crossbill in over a year was an excellent surprise! As usual for this species, it was very tame but unobtrusive, and we only noticed it because it landed in the middle of the road.

I don't think I'm going to go look for the bunting again. Wandering around a neighborhood for a few hours isn't really my idea of a good time!

I had this Long-eared Owl in my usual spot last week. Hopefully it will stick around, but I've never had one here for the whole winter. To find this species, look in dense conifer trees adjacent to open grassy areas.

The strangest thing for me recently has been the number of Orange-crowned Warblers around. Most are along the lake, but the bird below was in a brushy field a few kilometres inland. Not sure what it could possibly be finding to eat! I've had a total of five birds in different spots. Most years I won't see any after October!

It is turning into another fantastic winter for Snowy Owls. This one was very far away, but I got much closer views of some this weekend, so stay tuned for an upcoming post.  I'm not sure why we're getting two huge invasions in a row, but this winter's birds may be returning from last winter.

Winter is the best time to see gulls locally as Arctic breeders move south, and I've had a nice variety at Lakefront Promenade Park in Mississauga. This one is an immature Glaucous Gull (the huge pale one with the bicolored beak).

Iceland Gull is vaguely similar to Glaucous but is usually much smaller and daintier. This immature and adult (next picture) were only a few metres apart.

The crown jewel was this immature (first winter) Thayer's Gull. Breeding in the western Arctic, Thayer's are uncommon to rare on Lake Ontario, and I only see a couple each winter. A very attractive looking gull in its juvenile plumage, while the Herring Gulls of the same age have already molted into a messier looking plumage.

This Ring-necked Duck at the same location is a very good bird for Mississauga in December, and not surprisingly has since left. This species is mostly found on smaller ponds and lakes, so must go far enough south that these areas won't freeze.

There's lots more to add but this post is getting a bit long so I'll add some more soon.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Canada Goose Y3J1

I've posted about this bird before, but only recently decided to actually submit the code and see for myself the origin of the bird.

He returns to Guelph each winter, and I and others have seen him at pretty much every spot geese gather in the city.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Study Breaks

This morning Rohan van Twest discovered a Bohemian Waxwing feeding with a flock of Cedar Waxwings on the University of Guelph campus, and as I hadn't seen one since March 2013 I immediately walked over and easily saw it. This species is a very irregular visitor this far south, although they sometimes arrive in numbers. There was a large invasion in winter 2012-2013 and I had a maximum of 260 in a single flock in the arboretum.

Note the grey belly, reddish undertail and white markings on the wings. Bohemians are also much larger than Cedar Waxwings.

 These berry trees always attract flocks of waxwings, starlings and robins in early winter.

Although Cedar Waxwings are not quite as tame as Bohemians, they often still offer very good looks well pigging out on berries.

Several European Starlings were mixed in, looking very spiffy in their fresh winter plumage. These buffy tips will wear off, allowing the bird to completely change its appearance for the spring without having to molt.

Cedar Waxwings sometimes have tails tipped in orange rather than red, as seen on the bird in the background here. This a result of diets high in certain berries, and seems to be more common in Guelph than most places.

Cedar Waxwings have an interesting annual cycle locally. Many birds winter, but numbers seem to dwindle into the spring. A large wave of migrants arrives very late around the middle of May or so, and the species is abundant through the summer and fall. Most of our species that overwinter being migrating north much earlier (March or April).

Although they are now fairly common in cities, Pileated Woodpeckers were once restricted to pristine woodlands and were almost absent from much of Southern Ontario. The story is similar for Common Ravens which now also seem to be returning en masse.

Fox Sparrows seem to be lingering quite late all over Ontario this winter, such as this bird visiting feeders in the arboretum.

The local Northern Shrike was showing off this afternoon. This is the same tree and most likely the same bird as one of my very first posts to this blog!

Overall an excellent haul for a day which I mostly spent inside studying! My last exam is tomorrow morning, and I intend to spend lots of time outside over the next little while.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Early Winter

I haven't been getting out as much as I like recently due to school, but November is often an excellent time to look for birds and I've seen a few cool things recently.

This extremely late American Redstart was at a sewage plant at Arkendo Park in Oakville mid-month. I'm not sure whether anyone has checked if it is still around since. At a similar location farther west in Oakville (Sedgewick Park) there is a vast array of warblers and other less hardy birds hanging on (Yellow-rumped, Nashville, Orange-crowned, Tennessee, Wilson's and Pine Warblers, Northern Parula, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, House Wren and White-crowned Sparrow have all been seen recently). Hopefully most stay (i.e. survive) until I can get over there and see them! Now is the time to check those sheltered spots with open water!

Mink become much easier to see after a bit of ice forms on the rivers. I enticed this guy a bit closer with some squeaking.

I've posted before about my local Northern Shrike in Guelph, and it has returned for another season. I was surprised about how unconcerned these starlings were with its presence.

Mark, Todd and I headed out north of Waterloo today to look for Snowy Owls and other raptors. 1 Snowy and 3 Rough-legged Hawk were great to see, but my personal highlight was these 4 Snow Geese, including the first blue morph I've ever seen!

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Local Barred Owl

Yesterday a Barred Owl was reported to eBird from the University of Guelph Arboretum, so this morning Pilar Manorome and I tried to find it, and were successful in under half an hour. I was scoping out a distant Bald-faced Hornet nest (anybody who has gone looking for Barred Owls will know that they can be very similar-looking, and far more common!), when Pilar spotted it surveying it's surroundings just beside the trail ahead of us.

Barred Owls are uncommon in this area, but regularly come south in years of good rodent summers (resulting in lots of baby owls) and/or bad rodent winters. Judging by the ridiculous density of Deermice in Algonquin Park this summer it should be a pretty good winter for seeing Barred Owls in Southern Ontario. Check your local deciduous woodlots over the next few weeks as these owls move south!

What's good for seeing owls is not necessarily good for the owls themselves though. Like most of the Barred Owls I've seen outside of their usual haunts today's bird was actively hunting in broad daylight, something well-fed birds on the breeding grounds rarely or never do. Still, a Barred Owl successfully wintered here in 2012-2013, and hopefully this bird can too.

The other highlight today was a male Eastern Towhee, the latest fall bird I've ever seen and not a particularly common migrant at any time. Even though the landbird mix may seem wintry out there already, November is great for these occasional surprises.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Late Fall, Great Birds

Yesterday I joined Todd Hagedorn, Mark Dorriesfield and Josh Vandermeulen for an excellent day of birding in the Hamilton and Niagara areas.

Our very first stop was at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters in Hamilton. We noticed a few Horned Grebes offshore and also another bird with them that looked a bit funny, but we all thought it looked fine for Horned. Thankfully Mark didn't let it go and once we brought our scopes to bear it was quite obviously an Eared Grebe, a fairly rare species locally!

My best effort at a photo is rather dismal but you can see a hint of the darker cheek, one of the features distinguishing this as an Eared Grebe.

Luckily the bird has stuck around and many local birders have seen it this weekend.

We then headed further down the beach for a bit of lakewatching, and although the strong (and cold!) winds blowing in our faces seemed ideal for bringing some interesting stuff close to shore, we didn't have too much luck and eventually continued east.

 These geese in a random field somewhere were briefly exciting, but we quickly realised that they were some kind of domestic hybrid. In fact a bit of research reveals that they've been seen in the same area for a few years now.

Setting up again at Niagara-on-the-Lake, we immediately had a flock of about 25 Brant fly right by us! This small goose is quite tough to find locally and is usually only seen in flight during their late fall migration. I hadn't seen any since a distant flock during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, so was very excited. We had a second flock of about 80 birds a bit later too, but eventually moved on, spurred somewhat by the cold winds, spray, and sleet blowing into our faces!

We made a number of other stops not worth mentioning, but the highlight of the day was still to come when we checked out the area directly below Niagara Falls. While standing among the throngs of tourists we watched Bonaparte's Gulls feeding in the river directly below us, and almost immediately spotted something different.

That bold wing pattern made the identification of juvenile Sabine's Gull immediately evident even with just naked-eye observations. Here's a closer look and a video:

There were actually two birds present (as you can see in my first picture above), but they were not really associating with each other. Sabine's Gull is an Arctic-breeding gull that spends the winter on the open ocean, but small numbers, mostly juveniles, are seen in Ontario each fall. I've only seen this species twice before and never at this angle. Indeed, I can't imagine that there are many people who have seen Sabine's Gull from directly overhead given their propensity for the open ocean!

An excellent day if a bit bone-chilling. That is almost a given though when birding the Niagara River!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Red-winged Blackbirds feeding on maple keys

Last weekend I came across a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds feeding on Manitoba Maple keys in Mississauga. These seeds are a favourite food of Evening Grosbeaks but I can't recall seeing any other species of bird feeding on them, although I'm sure it happens very regularly.

As far as I could tell, every blackbird in the flock was a first-fall male, although there were a few Brown-headed Cowbirds and European Starlings mixed in. This segregation is very commonly seen in migrant Red-winged Blackbirds, with most smaller flocks have only a single age and sex class. Indeed, I saw separate flocks of both females and adult males in the area on the same day. As far as I can tell this phenomenon doesn't appear to have been studied extensively. A few possible explanations:
  • Less dominant birds (i.e. females and younger birds) avoid flocks with more dominant adult males that they may be very aggressive and hamper their feeding and roosting. This paper shows that older males are dominant at roost sites.
  • In many species, more dominant birds will remain farther north in winter to more quickly acquire prime territories in spring, while less dominant birds will winter in warmer and more distant areas. This study suggests that delayed arrival in female Red-winged Blackbirds may be linked to lower reproductive success. Segregation may be simply due to different age and sex classes having different migration routes and timings.
There's still new things to see in even the most common of birds!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fun on the Bruce

I saw more on the Bruce Peninsula than just wildflowers (see here for the last post), and this post will be a selection of some the interesting finds.

This Semipalmated Plover was incredibly tame, approaching within under 3 metres at one point.

I saw 3 different Ring-necked Snakes over the weekend, including this fairly large one.

One patch of milkweed was covered in these Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar, often with 3 or more on a single leaf.

I noticed this Eastern Ribbon Snake draped over some cattails in a tiny pond. This species is similar to the common Eastern Gartern Snake, but is much more delicate and contrastingly marked overall.

Most of the snakes were tiny neonates like this Ring-necked.

Dekay's Brown Snakes are common in urban habitats, but this individual was under a rock around a beautiful wild lake.

My first White-crowned Sparrows of the fall included both adults with white head stripes and brown-striped first-year birds like this one.

Large numbers of amphibians were crossing road in the National Park on a rainy night including 3 Spotted Salamanders, the first I'd seen since the spring.

New for me were these massive slugs crossing the road in the rain. This species is Limax maximus, and has been introduced from Europe.

The underwing moths are generally large and spectacular, but the White Underwing stands out even from the rest.

I'll end off with a couple of habitat shots. This is the Oliphant Fen, a fascinating habitat like nowhere else I've seen in Ontario.

The Bruce Peninsula is full of wetlands, any of which look excellent for birding and general naturalizing. We had a Great Egret here, one of over 20 for the weekend.